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Harold Burdekin’s London Nights

December 10, 2017
by the gentle author

At this time of year, I close the curtains at three o’clock and settle down beside the fire to contemplate Harold Burdekin’s nocturnal photography of London, as a celebration of darkness and the city, from the comfort of my old armchair

East End Riverside

As you will have realised by now, I am a night bird. In the mornings, I stumble around in a bleary-eyed stupor of incomprehension and in the afternoons I wince at the sun. But as darkness falls my brain begins to focus and, by the time others are heading to their beds, then I am growing alert and settling down to write.

Once I used to go on night rambles – to the railway stations to watch them loading the mail, to the markets to gawp at the hullabaloo and to Fleet St to see the newspaper trucks rolling out with the early editions. These days, such nocturnal excursions are rare unless for the sake of writing a story, yet I still feel the magnetic pull of the dark city streets beckoning, and so it was with a deep pleasure of recognition that I first gazed upon this magnificent series of inky photogravures of “London Night” by Harold Burdekin from 1934 in the Bishopsgate Library.

For many years, it was a subject of wonder for me – as I lay awake in the small hours – to puzzle over the notion of whether the colours which the eye perceives in the night might be rendered in paint. This mystery was resolved when I saw Rembrandt’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in the National Gallery of Ireland, perhaps the finest nightscape in Western art.

Almost from the beginning of the medium, night became a subject for photography with John Adams Whipple taking a daguerrotype of the moon through a telescope in 1839, but it was not until the invention of the dry plate negative process in the eighteen eighties that night photography really became possible. Alfred Stieglitz was the first to attempt this in New York in the eighteen nineties, producing atmospheric nocturnal scenes of the city streets under snow.

In Europe, night photography as an idiom in its own right begins with George Brassaï who depicted the sleazy after-hours life of the Paris streets, publishing “Paris de Nuit” in 1932. These pictures influenced British photographers Harold Burdekin and Bill Brandt, creating “London Night” in 1934 and “A Night in London” in 1938, respectively. Harold Burdekin’s work is almost unknown today, though his total eclipse by Bill Brandt may in part be explained by the fact that Burdekin was killed by a flying bomb in Reigate in 1944 and never survived to contribute to the post-war movement in photography.

More painterly and romantic than Brandt, Burdekin’s nightscapes propose an irresistibly soulful vision of the mythic city enfolded within an eternal indigo night. How I long to wander into the frame and lose myself in these ravishing blue nocturnes.

Black Raven Alley, Upper Thames St

Street Corner

Temple Gardens

London Docks

From Villiers St

General Post Office, King Edward St

Leicester Sq

Middle Temple Hall

Regent St

St Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate

George St, Strand

St Botolph’s and the City

St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Smithfield

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You might like to read these other nocturnal stories

The Nights of Old London

On Christmas Night in the City

Night at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery

Night at The Spitalfields Market, 1991

Night in the Bakery at St John

On the Rounds With The Spitalfields Milkman

19 Responses leave one →
  1. December 10, 2017

    A world I could just fall into and disappear within, forever.

  2. Celt permalink
    December 10, 2017

    How absolutely stunning these are! I really do wish to step in to them all.

  3. Stephen Barker permalink
    December 10, 2017

    Wonderful photographs.

  4. December 10, 2017

    Apart from Leicester Square, which despite the old lamps, is peopled and has an almost contemporary feel, these photographs have a nostalgic, almost theatrical quality.
    St Botolphs and the City reminds me of Disney’s backdrop to Mary Poppins, ‘The rooftops of London, cor! What a sight.’ St Bartholomew’s Hospital put me straight away in mind of the set design of Young Marx, which I saw streamed from the Forge Theatre into the cinema last week.

  5. Sue permalink
    December 10, 2017

    What wonderful evocative pictures.

  6. Douglas Reid permalink
    December 10, 2017

    Thank you so much for posting these wonderful photos!

  7. Douglas Reid permalink
    December 10, 2017

    PS where is George Street, Strand please? I can’t find that on Google Maps.

  8. Malcolm permalink
    December 10, 2017

    This is one of the truly great books of London photographs and I treasure my copy.

    I saw these many years ago at the London Metropolitan Archive and gazed in wonder at the sheer gorgeousness of the lush photo-gravure prints and the London they depict. I had to have them and I searched for years to find a copy of the book. I have memories from my childhood of the kind of light they capture. The slightly misty gaslight and the smoky air of the East-End at night was very similar to that in Burdekin’s pictures. There are similarities to Bill Brandt but these are much more poetic. There are a few more books by Burdekin – the best is probably A Book of Praise, a slim volume of pictures from around Britain that was published after his tragically early death.
    Robert Frank’s pictures of London from 1952 are also wonderful, as are those by Sergio Larrain from 1958. Both depict a similar misty, semi-mystical city, seemingly wrapped in a permanent protective cloak of fog and romantic light.

    Another book that has some great London pictures is Charmes de Londres which has wonderful photo-gravure photographs from 1950-51 by D’Izis-Bidermanas accompanied by the poetry of Jacques Prevert.
    There is also “London” from the Beaux-Pays series of travel books which was published by Nicholas Kaye in 1951, whose premises used to be located at 194 Bishopsgate before it was demolished. This has very beautiful photo-gravure prints, as do all the Beaux-Pays books.

  9. December 10, 2017

    “Mood Indigo”! To my mind, these look like award-winning theatrical backdrops.
    Each photo suggests a storyline, characters, orchestral soundtrack, and more.
    Absolutely stunning. I am enjoying falling into this nocturnal world of blue, as we experience a total white-out in the Hudson River Valley this morning.
    Many thanks, GA.

  10. David Cox permalink
    December 10, 2017

    These really are beautiful images. Thank you for posting, and you for a whole year of
    Interesting and informative posts. Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year

  11. Ana C R Quaresma permalink
    December 10, 2017

    Wonderful photographs !

  12. Ashley permalink
    December 10, 2017

    Fabulous, fabulous pictures and with the Duke Ellington band playing Mood Indigo, “that feelin’ goes stealin’ down to my shoes”.

  13. mark permalink
    December 10, 2017

    More “painterly” than Brandt he may have been, but showing the dead streets in the middle of the night is no substitute for photographing the living as Brandt so brilliantly did, thereby giving the streets and buildings some context. People in streets equals life!

  14. Marcia Howard permalink
    December 10, 2017

    What wonderful, atmospheric photographs. I felt I was walking through those streets, alone

  15. pauline taylor permalink
    December 10, 2017

    In answer to Douglas Reid George Street Strand is possibly one of those streets between Strand and the river which no longer exist. The offices of the Pall Mall Gazette were located in one such street and were described by Frederick Greenwood, the editor and my relative, thus. ‘We began modestly with a printing office on the naked foreshore of the Thames where the descent was made to melancholy flats from Salisbury Street, and with publishing offices in Salisbury Street itself. It has a castaway, precarious look, the printing office, as if, washed up from Wapping or thereabouts by one tide, it would probably be carried away by the next; but it was well appointed and perfectly comfortable except on the rare occasion when excessive rain or spring floods compelled the printers to go in and out on each others backs. It was a narrow, gloomy brooding little street, in which the roar of the Strand was lost; and its No 14 was so near the river (on the right hand side going down) that if any printer had really been in danger of drowning a life line might have been thrown from the editor’s window.’

    There is more and I suspect that George Street and Salisbury Street would have been very similar. Salisbury Street ran parallel with Northumberland Avenue between Adam Street and Carting Lane. It was demolished in 1896 and Shell Mex House erected on the site. Northumberland Avenue was constructed in 1874 so some of the small streets which were more like passages were lost then.

    Hope that helps.

  16. Kitanz permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Like a Dream, these Pictures are amazingly Beautiful!

  17. Avril Towell permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Douglas Reid, George Street Strand is now called George Court which is between the Strand and John Adam street. If you google this street, the view into George Court shows the stairway and the building beyond (hospital on Burdekins pic).

  18. Douglas Reid permalink
    December 14, 2017

    Thanks to Avril Towell for identifying the fact that ‘George Street’ is nowadays called George Court. (Thanks also to Pauline Taylor for engaging with my question.) What really intrigued me about that view up the steps to a monumental building was the latter itself. I did not notice the word ‘hospital’ on the superstructure until Avril pointed it out. This led me to realise that we are looking here across The Strand to the original Charing Cross Hospital, designed by Decimus Burton in 1831-4. It moved to Hammersmith in 1973 (confusingly, keeping the name), and the site was taken over by Charing Cross Police Station.

  19. Ronald permalink
    May 25, 2018

    I came across some Burdekin photographs in the current exhibition, London Nights, at the Museum of London and was so overwhelmed by them that I bought the original book, hang the eye-popping price. Bread and water for me for the next month. A masterpiece, ranking alongside Brassai and Atget. I’d love to know what camera he used. Almost certainly a 10×8 plate camera, or similar.

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